Privileging Political Parties above Experts

electoral democracies, according to wikipedia

If the technocracy currently taking over the EU makes people uneasy, perhaps reflecting on Peter Mair‘s comments would help lift the unease. Mair wrote a great paper entitled Representative versus Responsible Government that examines some of the problems democracies presently face.

For Mair, democratic governments gain their legitimacy through balancing two principles. They must be responsive, i.e., democratic and representative, and also responsible, i.e., efficient at handling the tasks, procedures and protocols of governing. The first principle reconciles the principle-agent problem – governments speak for the people. The second principle enables continuity w/r/t the kinds of expectations that have grown up around governments – they do things in the prescribed way and maintain political stability. But as the apparatus around government (the interest groups, international bodies, legal frameworks, etc)  has become more complex and as political parties have become more interested in governing (in the obtaining power sense) than representing, the principle of responsibility has become more and more dominant. And so we’re left with democratic deficiency and the rise of populist parties more concerned with “speaking for the people” than with assuming the responsibilities of governing.

But here’s the upside. In that the dominant political parties have already given up trying to represent, they’ve also given up their claim to governing. Why should we assume that parties are better at orchestrating the stuff of governing than experts and other technocrats? Most of their legitimacy was derived from representing the citizenry, but they don’t do that anymore. And without this form of democratic legitimacy, their role as actual governors becomes highly questionable. There’s no reason to think that politicians are better at governing than technocrats. Here’s how Mair puts it:

[I]f parties lack representative legitimacy, then it is difficult to justify their acquisition of a governing role or to argue against passing the whole business of governing directly to the judges, regulatory agencies, and the like. Without representation, it is difficult to make the case for privileging parties above administrators and experts, however effective they might be a managing government.

Here’s how I put it. Why are people really upset that EU technocrats (or international markets) basically forced elected leaders out of office in order to install technocracies?* The argument usually given is that it’s a dangerous example of unaccountable Eurocrats undermining democracy. Fair enough. Forcing out elected officials isn’t a great precedent to set. And clearly democracies should have responsive leaders. But take the case of Italy: Berlusconi’s representative legitimacy was a farce and his governing skills were a tidy blend of corruption, whoring and incompetence. It may be the case that these technocrats really will just end up shilling for the banks and other institutions from which they came; but it wasn’t like the other guys were doing anything better. In fact, I would argue, what they were doing was even dirtier in that they tried to hide it under a blanket of democratic legitimacy.

This isn’t to say that the assumption by technocrats of European governing power isn’t something to follow closely and critically. Paul Krugman is probably right in his excellent column about the unbridled romanticism of technocrats. But while this state of affairs may be problematic for various reasons (like governments for the maintenance of oddly constructed international financial regimes), it certainly isn’t because it upended some kind of democratic and effective legitimacy that existed before.

* Here’s a great article on how the ECB intentionally delayed intervening in order to in effect let the markets do the work of toppling the governments themselves.

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1 Response to Privileging Political Parties above Experts

  1. Pingback: Egyptian Democracy | On Hyperborea: ideas from the north

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